The Spring Surge

Evening on the Swan
Underway on a fine spring evening.

The Memorial Day weekend has just come and gone.  Preceding it’s arrival was a great surge of effort both for Carrie and myself, and the kids even kicked into gear earning a little spending money. With the weather cooperating it was possible to bring our primary property up to near July 4 standards!  This has been one of the warmest, sunniest springs I can remember.  The snowpack is only 61% of ‘normal’, and that means, unusually, forest fires are a concern this spring.  Eastern Montana has experienced wildfires already. So a bit of rain is quite a welcome occurrence just now, and today it is raining.

As I sit contemplating the past 4 weeks…, maybe 6 weeks of strong effort in chasing the forest back beyond our cultured boundaries, I am relieved by a brief respite before the final push to the July 4th holiday. It’s Sunday.

I’ve found Sunday’s are the easiest days off to justify.  Carrie and I have tried (successfully at times), to schedule our off days more towards the Tuesday-Wednesday zone of the week, but those days are easily gobbled up by contractors or appointments made by folks who don’t share our more creative view of a work week.  Scheduling Saturday and Sunday as work days fits well for us as those days are generally the focus of visits and parties to the properties we care for.  But Sunday…  Rarely does anyone argue about taking Sunday off.  So this was a Sunday, and I was taking it off.

With our primary property up and running, owners happily inserted, and other clients due to arrive in the next 2 to 3 weeks, I have had very little time to sail.  So I took Sunday off, and managed to spend 8 hours on the water.

Thunderstorms have been moving through the area, and I’ve discovered a neat little WeatherBug radar app that shows the storm clouds in real time as a stuttered display, logging their approach on a map over time; 40 minutes away, 30 minutes away, 20 minutes away,…visually I can see the storm clouds and their severity from satellite telemetry.  This, combined with an audio alert for thunderstorms in the area allows me to seek shelter readily if necessary.  I feel pretty secure sailing this narrow Rocky Mountain Valley during spring storm season thanks to an absolutely remarkable piece of technology. The smartphone.

So, the day was just fantastic. I began by motoring out to fLi’s mooring alone during a light shower and took the opportunity of the wetting rain to scrub the bird poop off all decks and fixtures.

The sparrows love my boat. Lots of Perch space.

C-25 sparrow
A sparrow attempts to light while underway. (probably looking for a good place to poop)

I finished my task, interrupted only by a visit from the owner of The Cedars and his guests as they pulled up to our bow a bit too quickly on the pontoon boat, giving his passengers a start. A couple of them cried out softly as the owner powered the 275 horsepower outboard in reverse, pulling her to a stop just inches before collision, and just as he’d intended, with a big smile on his face.
After introductions and a brief chat they were on their way and I went back to tending fLi.

Her decks now taken care of, the rain still falling lightly, and threat of thunderstorms perhaps 20 minutes away, I climbed into The Old Man, my 1970’s 12′ aluminum boat with her three wood benches, a 9.9 horse outboard, and a reliable anchor and oars.  I named her for my grandfather, who gave me his boat before he passed away.  Sporting swim noodles in brightly varied colors around her gunwales, I am able to pull her upside and bear against the sailboat in nearly any position without leaving a mark. I lashed The Old Man to the side of fLi and began the duty of scrubbing the water line.

I was reminded of a day more than 15 years ago in the Florida Keys.  Carrie and I were stationed on a 115′ Hatteras at an exclusive resort, and the entire crew were required to stay aboard, owners only were permitted ashore. It was a perfect opportunity to scrub the waterline. We all donned our swim gear, grabbed green kitchen scrubbys, and sat on our life jackets on the water.  In our free hands we each held a suction cup equipped handle. The handle could be easily attached to the hull while we scrubbed, giving us a handhold.  We wore flippers to further buoy our position against the boat.  It was laborious work and the effort required a lot of muscles that I was not used to using at such length. By the end of the chore I was as rubber as Gumby.

Back to Swan Lake.

With fLi I found it  most comfortable to lean on the gunwales while reaching into the lake to dampen my brush and then scrub away, thereby removing most of the filth fairly easily.  Though a fine green line remains on her blue bottom at the waterline and will require a sturdier tool.  Perhaps a green kitchen scrubby is in order.. another time.

I then crawled inside the cabin to relax and let the effort drain away. I grabbed a book, and an hour and a half later, nearly asleep from the somnolence of the rain pattering on the decks while bobbing around.  I received a text from Michelle, one of the many folks I’d invited to join me that day. She was available and would meet me on the dock!

With my crew welcomed aboard and the storm having passed, we set out for 8 hours of terrific sailing, company, and sustenance.  In that time we traveled no further than 3 miles from our mooring.  Tacking back and forth, running, heaving to, and generally exercising the boat and sails creatively and frequently, complete with a late sail change where we necessarily reduced the headsail AFTER a storm front blew in and knocked us -sailing!…  As for my lack of foresight I blame the fine display of treats that had been spread before me… I simply couldn’t see past them!

The result of all this varied weather was a very active, blustery, occasionally calm, and very enjoyable evening on the water.

Tomorrow is my wife’s birthday, she would like me to take her sailing. My Weatherbug app tells me there will be storms.

One can only hope!

Two Weeks in the Keys

On the next boat, we found great joy in working together as crew-mates. Finally fulfilling what had become somewhat of an albatross to us both, that of finding a ship that would take us as a couple.
This was a 115′ Hatteras that spent most of her time at a dock in Ft Lauderdale. Her owners were an older couple that spent their time lounging and throwing evening parties.  They were looking for crew for a two-week journey to the Florida Keys. Carrie and I signed on as deckhand and stewardess along with a chef and another stewardess.
The captain, as I recall, was from Michigan or Wisconsin and was a very pleasant man.  As we traveled from yacht to yacht we were finding that mid-westerners were easily the nicest people to deal with.  We found them to be generally more trustworthy, friendly, and helpful. This crew was no different, they were all midwesterners and we all enjoyed each others company greatly and we readily assumed the labors of attending to the owners while working well as a team.  Carrie and I were welcomed aboard and filled our positions readily and with great pleasure.
Quarters on this yacht were quite a lot more confining than I had enjoyed on the big ship.  I now understood the looks and awe of new and visiting crew upon viewing the crew quarters on the big ship.  What I had taken for granted there was actually quite a big deal aboard a yacht.  On this particular yacht Carrie and I shared a cabin.  This consisted of a set of narrow bunk beds, with almost enough room so sit up in, and a head with a small shower stall.  Our cabin was in the bow of the ship, so the top bunk was a little wider than the bottom.  As it was the bow, this was also a narrow portion of the yacht, so floor space was very limited. So much so that only one of us could be on the floor at a time, and if we found ourselves passing one another in the cabin one of us would have to sit or scrunch into a limited corner space to allow the other to pass.  Clothing storage was a couple of narrow drawers with a narrow closet space above them. The head was so small that in order to sit comfortably on the toilet the vanity cabinet directly in front could be opened for additional knee space.  The crew lounge contained a small round table surrounded by booth seating with a microwave and a TV where crew members could find a little down time or take a meal.
The owners of this yacht were what were termed ‘live-aboards’ as this yacht was their full time home.  They were nice enough folks who rarely left the boat and, lacking any real hobbies as far as I could tell, they frequently entertained themselves by micromanaging the crew. Recognizing this was not done maliciously, we readily tolerated their nosing about and frequent recommendations,  but it made things a little uncomfortable for everybody on board and certainly gave us stories to tell in our evenings together.  The Lady of this particular yacht enjoyed setting ‘traps’ for the stewardess’s such as placing a fingerprint high in a corner of a mirror and then disappointingly exposing it to a stewardess when it wasn’t removed in a timely manner. She also enjoyed hiding candy wrappers beneath the couch and chair cushions and then would berate the stewardess’s on their lack of thoroughness in cleaning by exposing the missed debris.  Other than this elite level of nitpicking, our time in Key West was uneventful. We were docked in a row of yachts at an exclusive high-end resort where crew were not allowed to roam. We were instructed to spend our time on the boat, being allowed a short walk to a convenience store nearby as our only break from routine. It was certainly not one of the more glamorous duties we’d held, though I did appreciate their crew shirt.  It was a nice style polo with a three color picture of the ship on the back and her name embroidered on the front in bright yellow.
We enjoyed our two weeks aboard with the trip to the Keys and the uneventful return journey to Key West, but we declined an offer to remain aboard as full time employees after the entertaining there was over, choosing to continue to seek ‘that perfect position’.  We rented a car and drove back to Ft Lauderdale where we continued to rent a room from an old shipmate of mine and his wife while we sought more amicable full time employment.

Our two weeks in the Keys and our first joint shipboard duty behind us, Carrie and I once again set out to find work. Knocking on halls and speaking with captains and crew was now a familiar routine.  In between these short yacht assignments we continued to find gainful employment at the shipyards that catered to yachts by filling voids left by vacationing crew.  These temporary jobs generally paid better than full time employment, but the duties were also a bit more involved as these boats were generally undergoing significant refinishing and repair and the labor was therefore plentiful.

Together at Last


AMC Leaving the Big Ship
AMC Leaving the Big Ship


Time apart can be hard for a couple. Especially, so I believe, for newlyweds as Carrie and I were at that time, having been married only a year. I had had a number of discussions with the captain concerning the possibility of hiring Carrie as a stewardess. He assured me she would be hired at the next opening. Though, 6 months in, and multiple stewardess hirings later, these discussions had proved fruitless and I was soured. The most recent excuse he had given was that “Indonesian girls could be had for half the price”. I recall the strangeness of a catalogue of Indonesian youngsters laying on his desk, indicating individual’s information and their expense of employment. I was feeling jilted after earlier promises of hiring my new wife had failed to come to fruition. I felt my time on board was short, whether by my own hand or theirs, as I had recently let it be known that either they hire Carrie or I would leave.

Full of the romance of a new love, and the bravado of a young man, I had informed him that if he did not hire my wife I would have to leave, as we were in love and wanted to be together. The captain had not taken this ultimatum well and had offered to “hand me my hat and show me the door”. I staved off an immediate escort off the ship with some verbal tap dancing, but I was still feeling a transition was at hand. He had heard only a threat in my words, and unbenounced to me at the time, I had initiated a race to my employment’s finish-line.

A short number of weeks later, in July of 1998. My Captain had spent a little time securing a replacement for me, and he had won the race I didn’t know we were running.  He came to me one fine afternoon as I sat in the galley enjoying refreshments. To inform me that my time on board was over and I was to leave then and there. That is how they did things on yachts, there is no two-week’s-notice given nor offered. No severance, just an immediate escort off the ship. These ships are much too valuable to allow a disgruntled employee the run of the place.

The yachting scene is a difficult one socio-politically, and is liberally dappled with distrust and false promises. A light application of truth to all matters being deemed adequate for most.  Individuals would sometimes promote themselves dishonestly and at times it seemed the rule of the day.

As I was given my walking papers the captain asked, “What shall I tell people as to why you left?”

I had not expected this question and replied directly and without hesitation. “Tell them the truth.”  I’m hoping he used my version of it..  In the end, it didn’t really matter, it just felt good to say.

I was a little saddened to go, but very much looking forward to rejoining the love of my life. After only 7 incredible months aboard, I was leaving my assistant engineer position, and it was the right move.

Carrie picked me up in her old Beretta port side, having said goodbye to all of my crewmates that were left aboard,  I exited the shipyard with a happy wave and turned my back on an amazing ship. That was 17 years ago, and I still keep in touch with a few of the crew.

I climbed joyfully into Carrie’s Beretta and we reveled in the short drive back to West Palm Beach together. The main thing I remember about this time is being back with the woman I love and feeling happy to be together again, having our whole future ahead of us. As we had gained some experience with our recent endeavors we were now more employable and we were confident that we could find a boat together.


yachts in a row

We return to West Palm Beach and moved in with some old crew-mates that I had met on the big yacht. We rented a room there and found work in a local yacht refitting yard. A number of these local shipyards catered to yachts specifically, and they were always looking for somebody to fill the void of cleaning or repairing these massive boats. I recall a particular set of shelves being built by one of these yards and it being installed into the big ship before I left her, I had overheard that this 5 foot tall 4 foot wide piece of furniture with 3 open shelves and 2 lower drawers, all painted white, overall an unremarkable creation made of fiberboard had sold for $5000! I was astounded that such a price tag should be attached to a simple set of shelves that I could have turned out in most of a day and a half of labor consuming perhaps $300 in materials. It was at this very point that I realized there was a class of people who were willing to pay for what they wanted and that their money meant less to them then a similar amount did to me, and that this would be the focus of my future efforts. The scale of expense on these yachts was astounding. Right then and there my future efforts at employment became clear to me. Other Peoples Things was to be my focus.

Meanwhile, I found some engine room work on a nice yacht being refitted in a local shipyard. I made friends there and enjoyed going from boat to boat assisting in any way I could and getting paid well for it.

Carrie’s experiences had introduced her to a decent yacht crowd as well, and she was able to clean and tend for these and other yachts during this period. All the while we were looking for a new position together at sea. It was about this time we discovered a yacht that was seeking crew for a two week trip to the keys. We interviewed with a very nice captain and were hired and thereby embarked on the next leg of our adventure.




Ressurection and Rejuvination

Swan Lake Ice Breakup Spring 2015
Swan Lake Ice Breakup Spring 2015

It’s springtime again!

Year 15 in this current evolution of my caretaking gig.

The snow has thawed, the ground is very wet, the grass is still brown everywhere with little green shoots trying to push through. The lake ice left early this year, really early. It was out by the second half of March, the earliest I’d seen previously was April 1st. Now the dock is free from it’s icy blockade and I’m ready to move the dock over into Cedar Bay. Anxious in fact. The Lake is up just enough, and everything should slide together easily at this point. Today is Monday, the day after Easter. And on Mondays I do my house checks. There are five properties I work for, five families, five high end estates. I start my morning this Monday like many before it headed up crane Mountain Road, to Bug Creek, to West Swan Shore Route along the Dark Side of Swan Lake.
The Dark Side of the Swan is the West shore. It’s tucked tightly against the mountains and is technically a rain forest. The forest floor is carpeted with dense peat moss, thick enough to lay down on comfortably. Vibrant enough to grow on and over large boulders which have been deposited here eons ago by the glacier that formed this valley.
The spring thaw is evident everywhere I look. Lots of water standing in the roadside ditches and ponds. Lots of ducks drifting about in these waters. beautiful scenes everywhere I look.

The Old Man, Spring Launch 2015
The Old Man, Spring Launch 2015

I love Monday mornings. My duties are laid out before me quite clearly, and they are uncomplicated at the start, and usually remain so. It is a day of hiking, peeking under houses, looking inside cabinets, listening, and smelling. I can generally finish checking all five homes by early afternoon unless I find additional duties to attend to. This leaves the afternoon open to other activities. Such as tending landscaping!

I’m so anxious to get my hands on the landscaping at Cedar Bay. The spring pruning of some bushes, the removal of the deer fencing from around the trees, the raking of the old dead material from the lawns in preparation for the new grass. De-thatching, fertilizing, renewing. Following the the holiday it is an appropriate resurrection. The regeneration of these properties to their summertime level of glory.

The greatest trials I have today are a Robin Redbreast that keeps pooping on the window sills of one home, and an owl that, until my recent efforts had been crapping all over the stone work on another beautiful log home.
For the defecating owl problem I found a product called bird spikes that are exactly that, plastic spikes that screw to the top edge of whatever the bird happens to be landing on that you don’t want it to land on. I also purchased and installed a couple of fake raptors. They now stand perched at the corners of the home keeping watch and intimidating any owls looking to vacate their bowels, I hope.

Dry-docks and Hard Choices



Dry-dock. Here I stand aboard a Russian cargo ship with my new Russian friends who were kind enough to show me around.


Drydock was an interesting time, filled with enjoyable off ship activities. I had discovered a local biker bar that provided occasional off duty entertainment for me with its outdoor parties and a class of patrons that I enjoyed associating with. I couldn’t encourage any of the crew to join me however, and we were a pretty tight group, so most of the time I would hang with a number of them on my off hours.

A nearby baseball diamond was home to the Jacksonville Suns, a minor league US team, this provided the occasional sporting event to attend,  and the day to day work was plentiful and combined with evenings off, this became my routine for a time.

Many of our crew of 21 had been let go upon our arrival and we were down to a smaller number of essential personnel. I’m sure many of the crew wondered from day to day whether their employment would continue.  I didn’t share this concern as the work I had before me appeared endless. The engine room was in disarray with cables and wires providing shore power, water lines providing fresh water. The ship remained home to many of us during this time.  Living aboard a 315′ ship that had been hoisted out of the water on a world war II era floating dry dock was certainly an interesting and new experience for most of us.

One of those who left the boat perhaps a month into our dry-dock time was a nice young red-headed British man. I have known only a few British folk, and if I am allowed to generalize on such a small amount of data, I would say I have generally found the English to be a little whinny. Pleasant, but whinny.  This young man was no different.  He was quick to complain, and first to take off for any fun as soon as it presented itself.  His vocalizations increasingly carried openly negative sentiment towards his position and our living conditions. Everyone had grown tired of his attitude. Though despite his regular complaints he was quite a lot of fun to have around during off hours. This was his first trip to America, and he was enthralled with Americana and thrilled to be spending time in the land of milk and honey. Along these lines he was a fan of monster trucks, a thing apparently hard to come by in his home country with it’s narrow roadways and dense population. Once we reached Jacksonville he began an earnest search for a monster truck of his very own. His search was immediately fruitful, and he quickly found a ridiculously jacked up black ford pickup with giant balloon tires. He purchased this vehicle and enjoyed ownership and use of it for a few long weeks when without warning (or much surprise to most of us) he was given his walking papers and was dismissed in a flurry of unsuccessful pleas to stay.

In yacht work, the crew-members enjoy a certain protection in that if you leave a ship in any place other than where you had joined her, it is the yacht’s responsibility to send you back to your home port. This along with his immigration status meant my British friend was to be shipped back to England directly, and would have to leave his monster truck behind. He spoke of bringing his truck back to his homeland, but I don’t believe he was successful in this effort.  Leaving these yachts generally comes quickly and without prior notice.

As my day to day progressed at a rather routine rate, Carrie had picked up a couple of short trips. One in particular came about when she received a page from a yacht she had been aboard previously who had recently lost their crew as they had walked off collectively and defiantly the previous midnight while in port. Carrie was flown to Boston late the next night and had a terrific adventure accompanying her yacht from Boston and back down the coast, eventually arriving in Savannah, Georgia. We had been keeping in communication and were more determined than ever to share a ship. Towards this end we’d lined up an interview in Savannah. I took a couple days off and picked up Carrie in Georgia where she cordially vacated her position.

While in Savannah, we interviewed for and enjoyed an afternoon with a captain and his wife, eventually I declined the position aboard this particularly beautiful yacht due to my own insecurities with tending the brand new and highly touted Detroit Diesel MTU 2200 engines that had just been installed in this high performance multimillion dollar watercraft. I was still new to diesel engines and the layout of smaller yacht engine rooms and didn’t feel I had enough experience to handle such responsibility at that point despite the confidence placed in me by the captain and by Carrie.  I know better now, I could have handled it just fine. My life might be quite different today had I accepted that duty, and though I have no regrets, it was recognizably a fork in the road for our yachting career.

I returned once again to dry-dock and worked for another few weeks there. Immersing myself in routine and duty.  Carrie continued to find day work as we searched for a yacht to crew as a team.




change of plans

All of a sudden!

It’s springtime in the Flathead. Lots of sun, lots of rain, a bit of snow, and a ton of work to do. This is the busy season and the hard deadline of July 4th looms ever nearer. There are docks to place, buildings to wash, boats to launch, and the ever encroaching forest must be pushed back behind the groomed borders.

I will continue to write as much as I can, but I can already see that a once a week blog will require time I may not always have. In an effort to keep a regular schedule while giving myself adequate pressure to write, I will release a story every other week until I am able to once again step up my performance.

The next episode will come out April 10th, and then every two weeks after, another.

Thank you so much for your interest.

Happy Spring!

Mike P Frey,
A Montana Caretaker

Lunch in the Deep End

 Memories of St Augustine.

deep endSwimming pool / restaurant, St. Augustine, Fl


One day, not so long ago, I found myself having lunch in a swimming pool. A reuban and potato salad in a small restaurant set in the deep end of a 100 year old, long drained, concrete pool in St Augustine, Florida.  It had been built when concrete was a fairly new material.  I had a fine lunch, though as I recall the sandwich was a bit small, the salad was fantastic, and I had tried vinaigrette for the first time, finding it delicious.

Just ten years earlier I had been walking a corridor in Cobleigh Hall at Montana State University when I was approached by a shorter, soft looking woman of middle age. She had her hair wrapped in a loose bun and balanced precariously on top of her head. Her half glasses were set on the tip of her nose and chained securely around her soft, slightly wrinkled neck.

“Excuse me” she intoned, playing on my years of conformity and successfully gathering my attention with her slightly nasally school marmish tone. “I believe this is yours”.

She handed me a large manila envelope.

“Uh, thanks”, I replied.

She clopped away down the hall, Mission Accomplished.

I shifted the book laden pack on my back and opened the envelope. There, printed on false parchment was the document I had feared for nearly six years. A non-commutable sentence, sealed with a rubber stamp, condemning me to the real world… my diploma.


It you spread your arms wide enough and allow the draft of chance and fortune that blows through all of us to pick you up,

and if you’re brave enough to go untethered,

it will send you fluttering, seemingly without direction,

but ultimately with destination.


I could never have foreseen the ultimate destinations of my decisions, the results of my daily choices, the connect-the-dots pathway of my life.

Day by day, options are presented, and are accepted or dismissed, for all of us. Even minor choices can send us hurling down alternate life paths. I find myself grateful, daily, for these choices, both those I’ve seized and those I’ve ignored.


While cutting my yachting teeth traveling the Caribbean and Sargasso Seas, Carrie had been picking up short trips to the Bahamas and worked on a number of yachts pulling Stewardess, Chef, and catering duties. As my waterborne residence and duty pulled alongside the causeway in Jacksonville, Florida on the St John’s River, Carrie met our ship, and once docking was complete, she and I headed off for a few days of vacation time together to enjoy our first wedding anniversary in St Augustine, Florida. “Our nation’s oldest town” founded in 1565!

Flagler collegeFlagler College, St. Augustine, Fl


We arrived in St Augustine on a June day, it was beautifully tropical and, though bustling, it still had a sense of a small town. It was easy to get about. Horse drawn carriages were for hire and narrow cobblestone streets were lined with shops. We visited Castillo de San Marcos, Flagler College, and enjoyed exploring the town and discovering its history together. It was every bit the pleasant tourist destination.

Castillo de San Marcos (Saint Marcos Castle) was a fort strategically placed on the ocean to protect the settlement of St Augustine. It was built of large blocks cut from sedimentary stone which had been formed by eons of tiny sea creatures that had washed together into great piles, eventually becoming as stone. This stone was strong and relatively light, composed of a lattice of calcium laden shells and structures with air spaces between. It was a uniquely appropriate product for a defensive wall as when cannonballs would hit them (as they sometimes did) the wall would give easily, dispersing the energy as the tiny skeletal remains collapsed, catching the cannonball like a padded catcher’s mitt and isolating the damage to a small point of impact only. We saw a few holes visible in the outside of the walls where this had happened. We enjoyed spending hours walking all about this castle, now a tourist attraction.

I had learned a year earlier, amongst the details of our wedding, that it is sometimes customary to keep the top of the wedding cake to be enjoyed a year later on the first anniversary.

As we were quite removed from this cake top, a bit of coordination was required to achieve this goal. The cake top had been stored in my parents’ freezer, and was to be shipped to us in St Augustine. This duty had fallen to my father. He tends to be overly analytical and unusually frugal at times, and as he was shipping a frozen cake from Montana to Florida we’d requested it be overnighted in the hopes it would arrive in edible condition, and on time. He’d made the decision to second day air it as the cost of overnight shipping seemed exorbitant to him. This caused a slight delay in the cakes arrival and a bit of consternation for, and joking between Carrie and I. The cake eventually arrived, still mostly frozen and in good condition. We enjoyed it a day late, delicious all the same.

Henry Flagler was an 1880’s entrepreneur. As a partner of John D Rockefeller, and having raised himself up from a poor son of a New York pastor, Flagler had built himself an empire. He traveled to Florida and was enthralled with the idea of converting St Augustine, at the time a sleepy little Spanish style town, into a playground for the rich. He was also intrigued by the use of concrete, and constructed a number of hotels and structures in the town out of concrete. These hotels are now known and operated as Flagler College. Mr Flagler continued his efforts of building railroads and concrete structures down the Florida coasts all the way to the Keys and his influence remains.  Henry Flagler’s infatuation with concrete, railroads, and Florida are worth further reading.  I enjoyed the following article.

After too few days together, it was time for me to return to dry-dock in Jacksonville to finish out my time aboard. Carrie went back to temporary employment aboard a number of other yachts and we would continue to actively seek another shipboard position together.





A Big Splash, and a Tasty Task

yacht with helicopterMega Yacht


Wait! Wait!

The hot tub on the stern deck was a work of engineering. It took all day to fill, even with the water makers chugged away constantly on board making fresh water from the brine beneath using the shipboard reverse osmosis generators. RO generators used extremely high pressure to force the many-times-filtered seawater through extremely fine membranes that allowed only water molecules through, and very little else. The water was then treated with ultraviolet light to kill any remaining threats to our health and digestion. Fresh water was always plentiful, thanks to the ‘behind the scenes’ efforts of engineering. We all took it for granted. When it came time to fill the hot tub, fresh water use and creation was monitored closely. Filling was timed around peak usage. Once full, the tub had to be heated. Large pumps and heaters were employed to bring the now pure water up to a pleasant swimmable temperature. Over-sized jets fed the tub and could be directed and adjusted to create a steady current to swim against, creating an endless swimming exercise, or could be aimed and increased to create a tremendous whirlpool. Air could also be introduced into the jets with underwater lights to create a perfect spa-like atmosphere. During my seven months on board this particular ship, the crew enjoyed this luxury once, and I could have done without it. My time at the pool was the site of an unpleasant incident, the event sticks with me as a stumble.

hot tub on yacht deckMega Yacht Hot Tub

We had been enjoying some down time on deck. Much of the crew and the captain’s wife, who is also the head stewardess, were all on deck enjoying some sun, cocktails, a little swimming, and lounging. I had just joined the crew on deck, happy for some downtime and camaraderie.

The captain’s wife was always very sweet. She was a caring lady who ran and managed the stewardesses and interior work efficiently and without incident as far as I could tell.
As I approached the hot tub with the crew lounging about, the captain’s wife rushed me to shove me in.

“Wait! Wait!” I cried. Holding my pager aloft, indicating that I did not wish for it to get wet. She paused in her assault and I handed her my pager and steadied myself for her shove. She took a couple steps back and then a couple rapid steps towards me with her hands extended. The only defense I can claim is that habitual action had taken over. ( It seems I may have picked up a thing or two in aikido class after all.)  I sidestepped, bringing one foot behind me and twisting away slightly, I grabbed her by the wrist and upper arm, and using her momentum, assisted her past me and on into the tub, effortlessly.

She still had the pager in her hand as she went under, and as she came up with a surprised look in her eyes, I was chagrined. The pager was of course ruined, and worse than that, I had pushed the captain’s wife into the hot tub. Also, not my proudest moment. I don’t recall the remainder of that afternoon as being very relaxing.

Choice Duty

seranella limo 3Serenella Limousine

The ship was magnificent in every way, the water toys were top notch, and the owners tenders were two Serenella-style Venetian luxury limousines tucked neatly into the sides of the aft portion of the ship. Extremely elegant watercraft and a storage and launch procedure that would make a space-station jealous.  Large sections of the aft sides of the ship would swing up and outward revealing storage for these 30 foot watercraft, which were then lifted and carried out over the ocean on dedicated cranes. One was a limousine, the other a convertible. Both extremely fine wooden boats and powered by beautifully kept duel Volvo engines.
I was given the choice duty one day of replacing an impeller in one of these Volvo marine engines. Not a big job, but a tasty one.

I was ecstatic to get my hands on such a fine piece of hardware. I gathered the appropriate tools, climbed up and into the engine compartment and settled myself in for the effort. I placed clean rags strategically about to catch both debris and parts. This project has stuck with me, not for any mishap or tragedy, but for the perfection and cleanliness and joy of working on such a piece of floating art. I was honored to be trusted with such a duty, and I performed the task without error, enjoying every moment of it.
It is difficult to explain the joy of working on something so fine. I savored every effort. Relishing in the feel of tools, the hospital cleanliness of the engine, enjoying even the cleanup and polishing of the finely finished wood. I felt pleasure in every second of this operation.

Most of my operations on-board contained a similar level of fulfillment. The engine work, the rebuilding of compressor systems, the maintenance and cleaning of the water makers. I enjoyed every moment of these tasks. Tools fit my hands well, and I enjoyed employing them greatly. I still do. It is where I find my greatest pleasure, in identifying problems and repairing them. The troubleshooting, the challenge, the fitting of the parts, and the satisfaction of a job well done have always filled me with satisfaction. The duties of an on-board ships engineer were greatly fulfilling to me. All that was lacking was my wife-my life-my love… I wished her to be near me, and it had been made clear that it could not be so on this particular ship. So I would eventually go.





Thump, thump, Clank!

giant yachtMega yacht

mega yacht engine room

The yachts I worked on all ran on multiple engines. On the ‘average’ yacht, two engines were employed to power the ship through the ocean, and a third to generate electricity. The first yacht I attended was by far the largest. It had six engines. Two of them being large Catapillar diesels that looked like they belonged powering a train. Each one the size of a three-quarter ton pick-up truck. These engines, when run in conjunction with two smaller electric generating engines could be tied together both driving the ship directly and/or through the use of electric generators tied to electric motors. Other engines of various smaller sizes were also used. All of them larger than any I had enjoyed working on previously, or since. Two other smaller engines ran electrical generators to provide the ample amounts of electrical power that were required on such a large ship. As with any engine, scheduled maintenance and occasional repair were required. Oil changes were to be done regularly, and the quantities of oil used were impressive. Changing the oil in just one of the large engines required removing nearly 450 gallons of dirty oil, and this maintenance was to be performed after every 500 hours of duty. Clean replacement oil was kept in a very large tank and waste oil was pumped to another.

The ship also used a significant amount of hydraulic fluid, also kept in large tanks. This oil was pressurized by hydraulic pumps and run through lines to operate the many hydraulic components on-board. Such as the moving of the great rudders, and the expansion of large rams responsible for shooting massive stainless steel bolts into holes that would keep the great hatches closed in the worst of ocean going conditions. Also the raising and lowering of gangways, and most uniquely to me, raising and lowering of a great propeller and drive assembly in the stern of the ship.

Many ships employ bow thrusters, it is even becoming popular in smaller watercraft. These typically consist of an electric motor, fixed, that can push the front or back of the ship sideways. It is made up of a tube with a propeller in the center, it’s direction of push is the result of the direction of rotation of the propeller. They’re greatly beneficial in guiding a boat into a tight slip. Especially in the presence of wind or current. This particular ship sported a stern thruster that was lowered down into the ocean on a grand spindle powered by a hydraulic ram. This spindle could be rotated through 360 degrees so as to propel the great stern in any direction. A similar technology can be used to power tug boats, giving them greater control.  When these thrusters were operated, the effort of moving the ship sideways would send great shudders through the boat, (following which I would replace many incandescent light bulbs designed for less traumatic and a more static installation).

Another use of the hydraulics was to raise and lower a great circular pad of the aft deck. Depending on its placement, this platform would become a hot tub when lowered with it’s void filled with fresh warm water, or when locked in-place became a large aft deck, capable of handling the landing of a helicopter.
As with anything, sometimes these hydraulic systems would fail in some way. Generally these failures resulted in a small pool of hydraulic fluid or an oily smear down a finished and otherwise white shiny surface.
The hot tub lid/deck was raised and lowered by a single great ram in its center, this ram required that it be pressurized with hydraulic fluid enough to expand and lift the lid into place. The hot tub contained a volume of water near 10,000 gallons. Hydraulic lines and connectors ran through the hot tub water beneath this platform. It was a connection in one of these lines that sprung a leak during its operation one morning, thereby contaminating all 10,000 gallons of water with hydraulic fluid.

Hydraulic fluid is particularly nasty product environmentally speaking. Our chief was an extremely thorough engineer. Everything was well documented and done to the letter. His performance in all his duties was inspirational, and should I ever return to shipboard work, I would make strong efforts to emulate his.   That being said, it was obviously necessary to properly contain this contaminated hot tub water so as to avoid polluting that of the ocean. So the contaminated water was pumped into waste tanks, filling them near completely.
Hydraulic oil is insidious and is very difficult to clean.  Also, it smells terrible. The only way this oil could be cleaned was to raise the platform to its deck position and remove some decking thereby exposing an access hatch. We then had to crawl down through the hatch and into the now empty, smelly, hot tub space. Lights were lowered into this space, hoses were run, and soap was liberally applied, then the scrubbing began. Select members of the crew took turns at this messy task.

Once the waste tanks had been filled, it was necessary to find a place to offload it. While in port, the duty fell to us to offload this dirty oil as soon as possible. To this end, large tank trucks with the ability to carry thousands of gallons apiece were employed, they came with large transport hoses which were then attached to capped hose bibs previously obscured beneath gleaming white covers on the side decks of the ship, at which point a coordinated effort began. That of removing the oil from the tanks and placing it into the large tank trucks.

Radios were distributed between three of us. One radio was kept in the engine control room where sat an engineer controlling the pump, one radio was supplied to an engineer on deck who monitored the hose and controlled an on deck valve, and one radio was kept at the tank truck. Constant clear communication was important, as this oil, if leaked, was a serious environmental and aesthetic problem. The offloading of this fluid took many hours to accomplish, and was an extremely monotonous task. I was on shift on deck monitoring the hose which had been clamped to the offloading bib.
I was pacing up-and-down the deck, monitoring my radio and watching the progress and looking around at the shoreline. The pumps ran on and on in a soporific thump thump thump. There was not much to see and I was greatly distracted in my duty. I had strayed a ways down the deck with my pacing when I picked up a change in the tone of the thumps.
This change quickly transposed the ‘thump thump thump’ into a ‘clank clank clank’, and I realized there was a problem. The sound was coming from the hose bib! Turning to face the connector and valve that was my charge, I ran towards the connector as the clanking grew louder and just as I neared the connection, the large dirty hose shot off the bib and up and over the side of the ship as it regurgitated a portion of its foul contents. Black oil sprayed across the revered teak decks and up the exalted shining white sides of the superstructure.

“Turn it off turn it off!” I yelled into my radio.

It only took a second for the message and responding operation to be completed, but in that second a large quantity of very black oil had doused the side of the beautiful ship. I was horrified. I knew I had failed in my duty to avoid this catastrophe, and felt very guilty about it. The chief engineer came up on deck, deckhands gathered about to view the disaster. It was determined that the hose had simply come lose through the repeated vibration and beating of pressure, and that I had failed to recognize the potential for, or progress of, such failure. The hose was reconnected. Mops and buckets came out, also rags, and lots and lots of soap. I felt terrible. The deckhands looked at me as if I had slayed their favorite kitten. I began scrubbing alongside them, but the chief engineer took me by the shoulder and said, “No, that is not your duty.” He then placed me once again monitoring the valve and connection and the pumping began again. I was dismayed. Not only was I responsible for this mess, I was to be kept from assisting in its cleanup as I must stand, doing my duty, watching and listening. This did not sit well with some of the crew, and they let me know. I was powerless to do otherwise. It was not one of my proudest moments, but I learned from it and was duly vigilant from then on.  This lesson carried on to my other duties as well. The remainder of the offloading occurred without incident and the cleanup went smoothly with the many hands at that task, sans my own.

Sorry guys.


A Kick and A Cannon


M/Y Al-miqirb
mega yacht blue

hospital waiting room

Hospital ER waiting room

The ships finished interior was dappled heavily with panels allowing access to electrical chases, switches, valves, plumbing, and storage beneath the floors, behind the walls, and above the ceilings.
The air conditioning was one of these systems that was accessible and adjustable behind ceiling panels in the cabins. With the incentive of the hot and humid tropical days and nights I had gotten quite familiar with these controls and therefore my cabin was generally a bit cooler than the rest.
Another system that was located in these ceiling chases was the alarm and detection system. Communications and power cables ran in chases that could be accessed above the ceiling. One fine day I was performing maintenance on the smoke detectors. This required removing individual 3’x4’ ceiling panels and also the pulling of a new wire in one instance, obliging me to remove the panels one after the other as I fed and secured the wire in the overhead chase. I was using a short step ladder to access and remove the ceiling panels, which were composed of nicely textured and finished sheet metal. I had been working my way down the hall and had reached a point in the hallway outside the galley, I had just pulled a panel loose when I fumbled, and it slipped from my grasp. We had been groomed to treat the ship with the utmost care. This instance was no different and as the panel tumbled towards the finely finished wood floor, my thoughts were focused on what a gouge this panel could effect. Without hesitation, and using all the skill of a college student well experienced in keeping a hacky-sack aloft, I stuck my foot out to catch the panel. The panel fell edgewise into my shin, it’s sharp steel edge cutting deeply into my flesh, impacting the shin bone beneath, creating a three inch gash. Thankfully the muscle and tendon were spared. I knew immediately this injury was going to require a bit of suturing.
We were in port in Jacksonville, in the dry dock which was in an industrial part of town, the shipyards typically not being the most upscale of areas. A crew-mate was nearby and assisted me with bandaging my wound as we made arrangements for my transport to a nearby inner city hospital. I was embarrassed. “Please call Carrie, but just tell her I’m fine” I requested.
As she tells it: “when I received the page and called back the first words I heard was ‘Mike’s OK!’”.  In recounting this tale she makes the point to indicate this was not the best greeting she could have received as she immediately doubted the speakers sincerity. He reassured her that I was indeed going to survive and was being well cared for.
Meanwhile I was shuttled to the emergency room where I introduced myself and explained my incident and injury to the triage nurse. The wound had been bandaged prior to leaving the ship and the triage nurse didn’t bother to look at my injury, asking me to have a seat. Against my better judgment, I didn’t push to have her view my wound even though I felt my injury was probably serious enough for immediate attention, but I chose to wait my turn. Seating myself in one of the fiberglass formed chairs sitting in long lines in the waiting room, I observed the dirty blood stained bandages lying about the floor, the general depressing state, and the down affect of the people around me. In spite of many hours spent in emergency rooms, due to the condition of this one, I felt out of place.  It was the most third-world American Hospital I have ever personally observed. I surrendered to my situation as I watched many people, some obviously injured more severely than I, pass me by. Six hours later, I was invited into the emergency room. By now it was late evening, and the place was hopping. My injury was finally inspected by a local medical professional, whose eyes went wide indicating he had expected something a little less. I received a quick job of cleaning and 16 sutures, and before the final bandage was even applied I was pulled off the table as a cardiac patient was rapidly wheeled up to take my place. Sixteen years later I wear a significant scar on my shin from that one false move.

cannonball with tridant

An old cannonball with a cool trident on it

The engine room of our yacht was huge, and was lined and crossed with a mass of white pipes of all sizes, some carrying oil, some fuel, some fresh water, some waste water. The waste water came in two forms, black and grey water. Grey water comes from the drains of showers, kitchens and bathroom sinks, also laundry facilities and the like. Grey water could generally be pumped overboard unless we were in a protected harbor with restrictions. Black water on the other hand was from toilets and those pipes carried only human waste. Black water sewage on board was stored in a large tank to be offloaded upon reaching port or to be pumped overboard when far enough out at sea and while underway.

I recall being anchored out at night, the perimeter of the yacht brightly lit at the waterline with lights positioned just beneath the waters surface. This was a beautiful and serene image that created the illusion of the yacht floating on light. Aside from the aesthetic and safety aspects of it, it also allowed easy viewing of any fish that might come within reach of their beams. The galley sink had a garbage disposal that would handle great quantities of food which was washed directly overboard.  During meal preparation or cleanup significant schools of fish would gather near the discharge, all positioning for the next serving. A fish’s dinner from a yachts chef.

Down in the engine room, large electric fire pumps sat gleaming white in a row ready for action at the push of a button. Many large round-handled valves in long shiny white rows were readily accessible, plumbed to direct water through a maze of supply lines at a twist. All engineers aboard were made aware of the function and operation of these valves and pumps should a need arise.
A macerator pump sat on the floor near these valves, it was a large grinder designed to obliterate and masticate the larger elements of the black water into a fine slurry which could then be pumped and stored below in great tanks until it was to be jettisoned. Crew members were instructed to avoid putting any personal hygiene products or recreational items down the toilet. This did not always translate well from land-side habits, and as a result, the macerator pump occasionally had to be disassembled and cleaned out and the offending clog creating material removed. This job generally fell to the lowest qualified person on the chain, myself, and the assistant mechanical engineer. I of course would handle the electrical side of the operation and being careful not to impose too much on his mechanical efforts, we would disassemble, clean, and rebuild the pump together.
On this particular instance the macerator pump was working fine, but one of the long white 4 inch diameter black-water pipes had gotten clogged, solidly. After attempting to push the plug through under pressure we determined we would have to remove the pipe to gain access to the offending material. We disconnected the pipe from its station spanning nearly 8 feet in length. A messy procedure to be sure. We carried the heavy pipe together, very carefully, with its ends stopped with rags, out on to the dock where we connected a fire hose to one end and laid the pipe like a cannon against a fender rail of the pier we were docked against. We aimed it out into the harbor.
At the Chief Engineers command, a fire pump was charged, then a valve was turned pressurizing the clogged line. The pressure in the pipe built as we stood transfixed, waiting to see if this would dislodge the plug. We didn’t have to wait very long. With a thwump and a rush of brownish water, the plug went sailing out over the ocean splashing down like the most foul cannonball ever. We cheered! Not exactly pirates, but capable cannoneers all the same.

The assembly was then reduced to its components and the pipe was returned to its original position in the engine room and was welded back into place.